On the Ropes (2011)
“It was supposed to be a story about a proper fighting gym, but that was before we heard about the other guy.”
Director: Mark Noyce
Cast: Joe Egan, Mark Noyce, Ben Shockley
Synopsis: When a documentary maker covers a story on a ‘proper fighting gym’, little does he know how events will unfold as his attention is drawn to a rival gym with a unique fighting style, owned by a self-professed karate expert.
Like the ‘found footage’ horror genre, mock documentaries have been pretty much done to death over the last decade, particularly since the success of Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant’s The Office, so on first viewing things don’t look very promising for On the Ropes, a low-budget movie described by its production company as ’Spinal Tap meets Rocky with a little of The Office mixed in for fun.’ Thankfully, while On the Ropes is highly derivative of The Office – particularly in the performance of leading man Mark Noyce, who also wrote and directed – it generates a surprising amount of good will on the part of the viewer thanks largely to likeable performances and a refusal to take itself too seriously.
The film follows a documentary filmmaker commissioned to make a film about a boxing gym run by amiable Irishman Big Joe (Joe Egan), who finds himself spending an increasing amount of time focusing his cameras on a rival martial arts gym run by Karl ‘Superfeet’ Kraft (Mark Noyce), a self-professed world champion. While Joe’s gym is a bustling hub of sweaty, no-nonsense boxing activity, albeit laced with a gently mocking sense of humour, the serious nature of Kraft’s school is broken only when he or his hapless sidekick Mick (Ben Shockley) open their mouths, and the unseen filmmaker quickly becomes so fascinated by Kraft‘s inflated sense of self-importance that he spends more time filming his exploits than the customers and staff of Joe‘s gym.
The key to success with mockumentaries is that the people onscreen have to be believable, no matter how much they make you cringe. It’s a difficult challenge, but thankfully for the most part Mark Noyce always manages to keep his characters grounded in a recognisable reality. Only the bovine loyalty of Mick, a stereotypical dumb sidekick if ever there was one, rings a little hollow. While Noyce gives an enjoyable performance as Kraft, his mannerisms and speech patterns are so closely modelled on those of The Office’s David Brent that his performance draws unnecessary – and unfavourable – comparisons, which is a shame because it diminishes his achievements in other departments. For a micro-budgeted movie using largely inexperienced actors, the performances are entirely believable, as are the characters created by Noyce.
On the Ropes is one of those films that succeeds in spite of the nature of the British film industry and its financing rather than because of it, and Noyce is to be congratulated simply for getting the film made. That he also provides the audience with a high quality of comic entertainment is an unexpected bonus.